I’ve been meaning to write a post for a while on our tactical evolution under Roy Hodgson. We’ve gone from a scrappy insurgency, often playing 4-5-1 under Chris Coleman, past being a very direct up ‘n’ at ’em with Sanchez to a more methodical, well-drilled, passing unit. I wouldn’t neccessarily describe us as defensive under Hodgson but we certainly approach our away games with a plan to frustrate the opposition and nick a goal on the break.
It is understandable that, after three spells with Inter Milan, that there might be a bit of the Italian in our Roy. That certainly shines through in the composition of his side. He’s paid particular attention on our defence since taking over from Sanchez at the start of this calendar year. He’s brought in a new goalkeeper and a domineering centre back to improve our rearguard but there’s also been a strong emphasis on improving the way in which we defend as a side.
Such organisation has characterised Roy’s career as a coach. His sides have always been set up to defend well, but I wouldn’t put him in the category of someone like George Graham. He took Switzerland to the second round of the World Cup in 1994, where he and Jack Charlton were the only Englishman involved in the competition, and for their crucial Group A game, Hodgson adopted a 4-5-1.
He took Inter to a UEFA Cup final in 1996-97, which they eventually lost on penalties after two even legs with Schalke 04. The line-up for the first leg shows the typical Italian formation – with a libero – and three central midfielders, thereby asking the full backs to push on.
In his most recent guise before taking over at Fulham, Hodgson narrowly failed to take Finland to Euro 2008. Unusually for the Finnish national side, they had a chance to qualify in the very last game – and this only enhanced Hodgson’s reputation as a footballing legend in Scandinavia. They played out five 0-0 draws in their fourteen qualifiers (sound familiar?). He varied his formation depending on the opposition but I thought it was interesting that he chose a 4-4-1-1 (similar to the one that saw Seol operating behind Bobby Zamora at the start of the season) for a key qualifier in Serbia.
In our first win under Hodgson, we played a 4-5-1 which I think typified the sort of steel Hodgson wanted to inject into our previously lightweight and defensively weak side. Notice that Leon Andreasen was included as a holding midfielder at the expense of a partner for Erik Nevland and I think that was the way Roy wanted to line-up until so situation got so dire that he felt he had to go for it and play Bullard and Murphy together alone in midfield (something of a risk as we’ve noted before) and give the fit-again Brian McBride a colleague to play alongside up front.
We’ve played with a lot more discipline this season. Danny Murphy has sat a lot deeper in midfield to accomodate the roaming play of Jimmy Bullard. Our midfielders have had strict instructions to tuck in – our full-backs have been given the job of providing width on either side – and track back into deep positions when we are without the ball. Good examples of this have been Zoltan Gera’s disciplined performance against Arsenal earlier this season and also (something which I haven’t seen recognised yet) Clint Dempsey’s defensive work in the second half at White Hart Lane yesterday. Such defensive discipline demands high fitness and also organisation from our forwards: time and time again we’ve seen that Zamora and Johnson aren’t excused from their defensive duties as the first line of defence.
You can see the extent of our discipline in the Telegraph’s density maps from some of previous performances. Have a look at how our midfield was grouped together against Arsenal:
Look how deep Dempsey (23), Bullard and Murphy are in this picture. All three are almost occupying the same position – which is why the latter two are almost completely obscured. Also since how far back Gera is placed.
So what does all this rambling mean? It might be a stretch but I think our tactical set-up owes a lot to the old Italian art of Catenaccio. That glorious word, literally translated means ‘door bolt,’ which describes how defences our designed to prevent the opposition from entering dangerous positions. The system was pioneered by Heleno Herrera, who coached Inter to success in the 1960s, with four man-marking defenders and a deep-lying libero. Few sides play with the libero anymore (it has been replaced by a holding midfielder as the in vogue footballing position) but there is evidence of an influence of the old system on Hodgson’s thinking.
The onus on our full-backs, who are almost wing-backs when we’ve got the ball, to get forward to supplement a ‘narrow’ midfield, and create opportunities is very similar to the way in which Herrera instructed his Inter side to play. Hodgson also likes his sides to play football from the back, witness the way Hangeland had a helping hand in Johnson’s second goal against Wigan by coming out of defence with the ball, and that can also be seen in the way that Bullard often drops deep to collect the ball from his centre back.
Particularly away from home, ‘Fulham nil’ are playing to a blueprint to try and nulify the opposition. Even at the Cottage, the responsibility of the midfield to get back and in behind the opposition when they are on the attack is evident. We’ve only conceded 12 goals in total and it’s definitely down to our system. Perhaps, I’ve attached too much importance to catenaccio but there’s definitely an element of the old Italian philosophy about our football this season.